Nathan Bransford, Author


Monday, July 19, 2010

Page Critique Monday: My Thoughts

Thanks again to KRWriter for venturing the page and to everyone who has already entered their constructive advice. I like the idea of a character staring at Earth and feeling scared about what has happened there, which immediately opens up questions about what could have transpired.

My main concern with this opening is that I fear that it stumbles at one of the most essential functions of a first page: getting the reader into a flow.

Starting to read a book isn't easy, and particularly with an unfamiliar setting it's so important for writers to ease the reader into the world and lead them from one thing to the next so that they can begin to place themselves within the setting. And one of the best ways to create flow is by looking at each paragraph as a cohesive whole - it should have a beginning, middle and end (just like a chapter, and just like the story in its entirety). One thought flows to the next, the sentences flow together, and the next paragraph either starts a new thought or complicates a previous one.

In nearly every paragraph in this page, paragraphs start one way and then veer off in a different direction, and the result is a choppy reading experience that doesn't give the reader a crucial sense of flow.

For instance, the first paragraph starts with description (earth), then veers into exposition (about how people still live there), then back to description (the hand). It just didn't feel like any of the thoughts were properly completed or quite fit together, and I wonder if this paragraph would be more effective if it were rearranged into two paragraphs with completed thoughts, roughly along these lines:

The Earth hung in the blackness, a bright blue and green orb floating in a black sea of stars and silence. Voya placed her hand against the cool glass, sweaty palm hiding Earth from view, as if trying to block it out. The past few sleepless nights found her tossing in turning in a cold sweat, waking from nightmares she couldn’t forget.

Some people still lived on Earth. They chose to stay during the Great Evacuation of 2800. Voya’s people chose to leave the polluted mess and let Earth heal itself. (more here to ground the reader in what actually happened before you get into dreams)

Similarly, the second paragraph seems to veer from dream to awake then back to dream in the third paragraph, and I think it would be more effective if there were one paragraph about where she was sleeping and one paragraph about the dream:

Her dorm room lay in darkness, the only light coming from the stars winking in the sky outside. In a few short hours the morning bell would ring, signaling the start of classes for the day and the beginning of a new school term. Voya climbed back in bed, pulled the covers up to her chin, and squeezed her eyes shut. She was determined to fall asleep again before morning.

The dream started as it always did. Ark2 crashed to Earth, dragging a plume of flames and smoke behind it. Odd, she thought, to be viewing the crash from outside the ship. Usually she viewed it from a window, clinging to a bare pipe or door frame while the ship shuddered and jolted, everything succumbing to flames outside.

(Then a paragraph about Earth's inhabitants attacking the ship in the dream).

If the paragraphs moved from one thing to the next, the flow would be much improved.

All that said, it's still somewhat risky to begin with a dream sequence unless it's absolutely necessary, because without knowing more about the world it's difficult for the reader to know how literally they should take what is transpiring in the dream, and they may well feel like the writer is sending them on a wild goose chase. But I think there is some good material to work with in this page, and with some more organization I think this is going to be an evocative beginning.

More specific thoughts in the redline below:


Title: Untitled
Genre: YA/sci-fi
250 words

The Earth hung in the blackness, a bright blue and green orb floating in a black sea of stars and silence black repeated. Some people still lived on Earth. They chose to stay during the Great Evacuation of 2800. Voya’s people chose to leave the polluted mess and let Earth heal itself. Voya placed her hand against the cool glass, sweaty palm hiding Earth from view, as if trying to block it out "as if" cuts against the omniscient perspective - is she or isn't she trying to block it out? The voice should know. The past few sleepless nights found her tossing "nights found her tossing" slightly awkward phrasing in turning in a cold sweat, waking from nightmares she couldn’t forget.

In her dreams, Ark2 crashed to Earth. Earth’s inhabitants were rumored to be hostile, and in the dream attacked the fallen ship. Her dorm room lay in darkness, the only light coming from the stars winking in the sky outside Is this happening in the dream? Or are we back to her being awake?. In a few short hours the morning bell would ring, signaling the start of classes for the day and the beginning of a new school term. Voya climbed back in bed, pulled the covers up to her chin, and squeezed her eyes shut. She was determined to fall asleep again before morning.

The dream started as it always did, with Ark2 crashing to Earth, dragging a plume of flames and smoke behind it. Odd, she thought, to be viewing the crash from outside the ship Is she fully conscious in her dream? Remarking on the oddness of her perspective seems like a very fully-formed thought to be having within a dream. Usually she viewed it from a window, clinging to a bare pipe or door frame while the ship shuddered and jolted, everything succumbing to flames outside.






33 comments:

swampfox said...

I know opening with a dream sequence is taboo, but I say let her dream while she can. Less chance of her falling asleep in class!!

Maya said...

Another insightful critique. I didn't realize that the flow was bothering me, but now that you've said it, it seems quite obvious!

Anonymous said...

Although I immediately saw an evocative story here, I also thought some of the sentence/paragraph structure was awkward. I saw one remedy, but was enlightened by yours, Nathan. So clear. So MUCH clearer.

Anonymous said...

A question for Nathan:

Sometimes repeating words are better cleaned up.

However, in some writing, the repetition of words is like music and takes you inside a feeling/description/etc. deeper.

How do you know the difference?

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

I'm not much of a fan of repetition in general, but this is one of those areas where it's not so easy to generalize. If it works it works.

Sheila Cull said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kate said...

You're so right about the flow and I think I'm definitely guilty of that.

Thanks, writer, for offering yourself up so we can all get better!!

KRwriter said...

Thanks Nathan, and thanks to all those whose helpful comments will help my revisions be better!

Marilyn Peake said...

Your critique is very insightful, Nathan, and I also love today’s excerpt posted for critique. But I have a question about the science. Do you have any problem with certain scientific mistakes that others pointed out? For example, stars don’t wink in outer space. They only appear to twinkle from Earth because Earth’s atmosphere is turbulent and scatters the light. Out in space, stars appear as solid points of light. Also, as Jill Elizabeth pointed out, if Earth was too polluted for most humans to continue living there, Earth probably would no longer appear primarily blue and green from space. And, as swampfox pointed out, there wouldn’t be “sky” in space and “morning” would need a reference point other than the appearance of a sun rising and setting. If a person is in a space station tethered to Earth, moving in geosynchronous orbit with Earth, then they would move with Earth and experience day and night on the side of Earth the space station is tethered to; but a ship in space wouldn’t be tied to the same cycles of “day” and “night”. These are background research issues. I still think the writing is beautiful and that’s the most important thing to carry off, but I think it’s much easier to keep the reader believing in a science fiction world when the science is correct as far as we know it.

Sarra said...

Great critique! I think there is some beautiful language and interesting imagery here, and it sounds like an interesting story. Good job KRwriter!

Nathan Bransford said...

marilyn-

I thought those were good thoughts, though I thought the stars could have been winking from the glass of the spaceship windows and didn't want to nitpick in case it was intentional. I thought the Earth possibly looking different was a good idea but again would defer to the author on that as we don't know the extent of the devastation on Earth.

annegreenwoodbrown said...

I've enjoyed reading the page and the comments--lots to learn from. Here's my teeny tiny point--really more of a typo than anything else--but the expression isn't "tossing in turning" but "tossing and turning."

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

I liked some of the writing and story ideas here - interesting setup and imagery.

Like Nathan, I thought it was a little choppy and could be restructured for better flow and clarity. But I think part of the problem with the structure is that this opening tries to do too much. In the first 250 words we have one setting (her room) and then another (the earth) and then another (the dream world). We meet a character, we get a chunk of backstory, and then internal conflict over dreams, a hint of the future (school), possible foreshadowing (dream) -- all in a very short space, and in a scene that's actually fairly static in terms of action (a character looks out the window).

It ends up feeling a little rushed and confused, even though the writing on the sentence level is quite good. Take a little time, here, and don't try to do too much at once... and I think the flow and structure will fall into place.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I felt like the exposition regarding the evacuation of Earth and some people still living there could have been integrated into the story more gracefully. Nathan's edits are an improvement, but it might be better if you could work it more seamlessly a bit later, maybe through a conversation or the character's thoughts. If you're set on opening with a dream sequence, this backstory feels a little out of place right here.


Nathan--AFAIK, spaceship windows don't make stars twinkle; as Marilyn said, it's the Earth's atmosphere that does that. Unless the windows are engineered in some way to duplicate the effects of the atmosphere, perhaps to fill some subconscious need for the familiarity of "home"...but that would have to be worked in. As for morning, etc., I assume the spaceship inhabitants are functioning on some sort of Earth-time, but it did throw me a little. And as she said, Earth probably wouldn't be pretty blue and green if it's so polluted.

Marilyn Peake said...

Thanks for explaining your reasoning, Nathan. I really appreciate that. When writing science fiction, I’m very hard on myself, forcing myself to research every single fact. I find that fun. I hope I don’t sound like I’m nitpicking. I think Kristin’s correct that stars wouldn’t twinkle through glass. Here’s a really interesting NASA article about viewing stars in space. Hope this is OK for me to post this. I actually find researching this stuff a lot of fun. :)

Jil said...

Thank you KH writer, these are so good for us all! I must take issue with the scientific view. As this is the dream of a schoolgirl, she may not be aware of all those facts Marilyn and Kristin mention and therefore whatever shows up in the dream would be only what she does know. Maybe as the story progresses the true facts will become important.
I hope someday we may find out,

Dan said...

I wonder if this is the proper place to begin the book. It sounds like the MC is at boarding school or college on a space station and I think that is the opening hook. You need to bring in the characters and show them doing something active and interacting in an interesting way; something like a zero gravity dorm prank would be a good way to introduce the characters and the setting.

It seems like you think it's very important to begin the book by explaining the great evacuation and the backstory behind this setting. I think that is something you can fill in later. It might be worthwhile to consider reading the first "Harry Potter" book and watching "Star Wars" to see the structural devices people have successfully used to break into stories set in complex fictional worlds.

You always want to establish the character and some conflict as quickly as possible; it is difficult to make a character connect with a story when you open with world-building.

Rather than talking about things like the evacuation as exposition, it would be good to fill that in as a flashback to give those events impact and immediacy. And you can then relate the characters' experiences during that traumatic event to the choices they make in the plot going forward.

Also, dreams are problematic. Nothing is at stake in a dream, and if the character is asleep, she isn't really doing anything active. And using dreams for foreshadowing is an especially clunky device, because nobody really has prophetic dreams. Any information you introduce in a dream can be better introduced in some other way.

A dream sequence is a narrative device, and you chose to use this device to solve a narrative problem. There is always a more elegant solution.

Mira said...

Nathan - that's outstanding. I admire how you step back and see the work as an overall flow. After reading this, I vaguely felt what you brought out very clearly. I consider myself fairly good at critique, but you're leaving me in the dust. :)

You know, you might consider working in the world of books. I think you have a talent for it.

And once again, I wish to reiterate that I rarely suck up. Sincerity.

I also find that I routinely like what Marilyn writes on critique, and Bryan, as well - I like what you said about the opening trying to do too much. That felt on target to me, too.

I haven't browsed the other thread yet...

So KRWriter, I have nothing to add on critique - how could I - but I will say we really need good sci fi writers! Especially a woman - yay! I know that shouldn't matter, but it does to me. :) This reminded me vaguely of Heinlein (ironic, given his sexism) and I found the storyline interesting - this is the type of story I'd settle in for a good read, so I would definitely want to read more - I enjoy sci fi.

Keep going! Sci fi needs you! :)

Laura said...

Love your blog! I notice you have a list of blogs by literary journals--you should check out Willow Springs' blog at thebarking.com

Ishta Mercurio said...

See - I KNEW Nathan's critique would be better than mine! (big grin) I agree with his points, but he said it so much more clearly and succinctly than I did.

I like the dream sequence near the beginning here, even though it's often a no-no. I think it works in this instance. Just my two cents.

Lana Lorett said...

Dear Nathan,

I am fairly new to posting so I am not sure if I was post #82 in the "Page Critique Monday". I counted (in ascending order) and I think I am.

As a result, I would like to apologize if my word count went over 250 words. When I counted the words (using MS-Word), I saw a 245 word count. However, looking at it again, I noticed that the 245 words did not include the Location/time heading. I included the Location/time heading and saw the word count jump to 264 words, which does go over the 250 limit(sorry :( ).

I did not know that the Location/time heading would count so I apologize.

Perhaps I can remove it to get back to get back under the 250 words?

Any recommendations?

If I was not post #82, please ignore.

Sincerely (and embarrassed),
Maria (a.k.a. Lana)

Nathan Bransford said...

lana-

Whoops, sorry, I actually mistyped the number in the main post. I was actually looking at 62, not 82. Don't know how I managed to type in 82, but it was a hectic morning. Sorry for the confusion!

Drax said...

Great, great post. Thanks..

Anonymous said...

The dream sequence is possibly the most tired plot device in all of writing - when an author uses this device (then at least for me) it only serves to announce that there's an amateur in the house.

I just think that unpublished novelists need to know how editors think - and I think that most editors, upon seeing this device, would likely end their reading right there and then.

Of course there are great writers who have included dream sequences in their writing - but the exception is not the rule.

That said, keep writing. You might want to post a more lengthy excerpt in the excerpts section of Nathan's excellent forum. You'll likely get some good feedback, which you can either digest or reject.

And on a side note: when I was in my senior year at high school, for my creative writing assignment, I wrote a dream sequence within a dream sequence within a dream sequence within a dream sequence. I was just incredibly pissed off with my teacher when he said he couldn't follow it.

Couldn't follow it!

Couldn't he see that it was plainly a dream sequence within a dream sequence within a dream sequence within a dream sequence!

Anonymous said...

By the way, where in the name of Socrates are we supposed to post our first page?

Anonymous said...

Anon, 8:25, you need to go see INCEPTION at the movie theaters!

Nathan, you did a wonderful job of critiquing the work. I agreed with all your notes, and also agree that there is potential in this piece.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Anon 8:33,

If you want to submit your page, go to the main blog page and click on FORUMS. Once in the Forums, you click on TOWN HALL. Once inside the Town Hall, click on NOMINATE YOUR PAGE FOR CRITIQUE ON THE BLOG. Copy and post your submission in this thread.

Note: to post, you have to be a member of the forums. If you're not, you'll have to join first. (Note on the note: there's no cost or anything, and joining is a very simple process)

Best of luck.

bsgibson said...

I, too think the flow of words made it difficult to follow, although the story line is intriguing along with the setting of the scene. Good luck. Would love to read exactly what happened on earth.

Melody said...

Thank you so much, Nathan, for posting these critiques. Not only do they help me know what to do/what not to do in my own stories, they give me an idea of how a good critique should work. Thanks!

ryan field said...

It's interesting how in many cases just adding or changing or deleting one word could solve a minor problem.

If you change black to dark, it would work. Or as you said, just delete black an it works just as well.

Sara said...

Hi Kara,

Thank you for being brave enough to let us all read your page! I don't usually read YA or sci-fi, but I liked the feel of yours. I liked the underlying compassion that I thought shone through in your main character's thoughts.

It looks like you got a lot of great feedback today! The only thing I'd add is that I popped over to Janet Fitch's "10 Writing Tips That Can Help Almost Anyone" (the link to which Nathan posted a few days ago), and I found it EXTREMELY helpful. Tough to actually implement, but extremely helpful. Among them, she suggests "killing the cliche." And what do you think #1 is? "Cold sweat." (!) I might also add to that list, "sleepless nights."

After reading Janet's tips, I'm going back and taking out all my cliches (or at least trying!). That might be helpful to you as well.

Again - great start and thanks for sharing with us! :)

-Sara

Lana said...

Nathan-

No worries. I write typos all the time. I'm happy that you take the time to perform the crits in the first place.

Lana said...

KRWriter:

I enjoy SF as well, so I was immediately drawn to read. I liked that there was an Evacuation and that the protagonist is in some sort of ship.

As Nathan and others have pointed out, there are some repetitions and flows that could be ironed out.

The only other comment I can offer is that of the name "Voya" reminded me of Star Trek Voyager. Just something to think about. :)

Related Posts with Thumbnails